Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tailor Tales: Using African Wax in Western Styles

Remember when I said I was going to the tailor to have this kaftan dress made?

Whelp, I'm going today, four months later. Better late than never, am I right?

Last time I talked about visiting the tailor in Senegal, I focused more on Western-style pieces made from standard fabrics. This time I'm going to take you through the process of designing and commissioning Western Styles in African Wax with local tailors, starting with my prep for the first visit to the tailor (today!) all the way through to the finished product. Here we go!

I'm still on board for the kaftan-inspired dress, but I'm also bringing a whole host of things to alter and I have a few new ideas up my sleeve as well ;) The truth is I have hoards, and I mean HOARDS, of African wax that I've been collecting over the past several years. I also have quite a few failed fashion attempts that I want to remake into something new.

Besides the kaftan dress, I'm going to use this wax fabric, a kind gift that I don't exactly love, but I'll definitely be putting to good use.

The pattern has full ovals and is quite large. The scale is hard to determine from this picture.

To start, the three best methods to getting what you want from the tailor are to either:
  • Bring printed photographs of the designs you want, showing seams and details... especially if you don't have the expertise or vocabulary to specify those things (like me).
  • Sketch the style you are looking for... similar to printing a photo but not as accurate/specific. This method is hit or miss, because the tailor might seem like he understands what you want... when that isn't the case at all. This can be hard to gauge, especially if language is a factor.
  • Bring an existing piece of clothing to have copied directly (maybe with some minor changes). This option is the most fool-proof, but you need to keep in mind the fabrics... if you bring in a flowy dress to have copied in wax... the results might be questionable. But who knows?! 

Wax fabric is best used in structured clothing with appropriate darts and seams to create shape. I don't know anything about sewing so its really hard for me to explain this to the tailor. (I don't know what kind of dart you need to make something fit me properly! That's your job, Mr. Tailor). Beware that most tailors here are used to "standard" African body-types and traditional designs. Because my body does not have the "typical" proportions of most African women (obviously generalizing here), I always try and point that out. I don't need my skirts to be extra baggy in the derriere ;)

That being said, most major African cities have tailors who have worked with expats before and are more familiar with Western designs. Ask around the expat community for recommendations. Also, I've noticed wax in modern styles is becoming more and more popular with African men and women, especially in countries other than Senegal (Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso for instance). It can also be fun to try a modern twist on a traditional outfit. Down the line, I'm thinking of a modernized tunic with intricate embroidery.


Here's my plan for today :)

First, I want to make a simple, empire waist dress with a black jersey top and wax bottom. My goal is comfort, not always easy with wax fabric which is pretty stiff and a touch scratchy. I want a jersey top because it has a some stretch and will be much more comfortable close to my skin, while the bottom half will more structured. Plus the black top will hopefully balance the large, geometric print on the bottom. I was considering going with a maxi length dress, but I think knee-length is more modern and versatile. I actually plan to draw a simple sketch for the tailor, but here are some similar dresses I've had made or purchased in the past.

The dress on the left I bought ready made... its a little bit short and was originally strapless, but I had spaghetti straps added on. The right-hand dress I designed and the tailor surprised me by using a thick polyester on top. It actually worked out pretty well though!

With what's left of the fabric, I've decided to have a peplum top made. Wax fabric is best used in structured designs because, like I said, it is fairly stiff, especially before its been washed a few times (but then the colors start to fade, so don't wash too often). I'm no fashion designer, so there are probably much more technical terms for these things ;)

I like the back on the black top, and the African print top is cute but definitely too short for me. I also plan to bring the waist up slightly like the white top, to make it more flattering on my body. Links to these tops here.

Here's another structured blouse I've had made that worked out nicely:

Unfortunately this is the only picture I have wearing this shirt and you can't see it toooo well, but I think you get the idea?! Fun fact: this blouse was made from a dress that I designed that came out horribly. I had to salvage the peacock pattern :) I drew a simple sketch for the tailor and this time it really worked out!

And now for a few points I'm going to insist on today with the tailor (because these have caused reoccurring issues in the past):
  • The length of the shirt: As a rule, I like my shirts long-ish, and I have a somewhat long torso. Traditional tops for women here are cut very short and that is definitely one of my pet peeves.
  • The arm pit holes (?!?!) need to be cut low enough so that I can BREATHE in these dresses/shirts. Wax fabric does not breathe, and again, this is one of my personal pet peeves. I hate when fabric is too tight/constricting under my arms, causing chaffing and sweating. Ugh!
  • A fitting before he's totally finished. I've heard this is standard in most places that have a lot of custom tailoring, but not so much in Senegal. The tailor normally presents you with your ready-to-wear outfit.... but for me, it never, ever fits on the first try. Of course the tailor will alter what he's made, but I really want to work in a fitting before all the final touches are completed. We'll see if he agrees ;)
  • High(er) quality zippers. Good luck on this one.... Zippers here almost always break or have a hard time opening and closing. I try to avoid zippers in general, but I'll definitely say something this time. You can only try!

Let me end with a little disclaimer: I am very, very particular about my clothes and their fit. This is not to say I am a fashionista by any means whatsoever, but I hate wearing clothing that is uncomfortable or fits my body wrong. It makes me feel icky and self-conscious. Some of my friends are much more open to clothing that doesn't come out quite how they imagined it... Unfortunately, that is not me. Because I'm so particular, I normally get clothes made in spurts, and then give up for a few months. I would suggest that you go in with an open mind, ready to go into extreme detail on what you're looking for! And don't be afraid to ask for alterations after the fact... that took me awhile to learn.

Fingers crossed for today. I'll come back with updates and the finished product. Idea phase to completion... We'll see how it works out!

P.S. If anyone out there have any suggestions or tips to add, please do so! I love hearing about other people's experiences with tailor-made clothing ;)


  1. That sounds so exciting, Kim! I'd love to be able to afford paying a tailor to make the things I love and that fit me. Unfortunately, tailors are really expensive here, so I'll try to sew a little by myself. Some day.. We'll see..

    1. I know... it is such an advantage living somewhere with affordable tailoring. I really take it for granted sometimes. After this meeting, I'm inspired to have EVERYTHING in my closet tailored to fit perfectly, and then craft a whole new wardrobe as well. Must reign in my fashion insanity! Haha...

  2. Kim I love this post! I definitely find that bringing the piece works best! Although one of my favorite dresses I own was made by my Cameroonian host father in 2007, who happened to be a tailor (lucky me, right?). I wanted two American style dresses, I vaguely described. I got one copy of a Dolce and Gabbana runway dress, an epic failure, and one he created on his own. His original American dress has been with me ever since!

    I love the skirt you are wearing in the classroom!

  3. I love Africa waxed fabrics, and I really regret not getting anything made while I was living in Swaziland (although I do have an awesome African outfit from Sierra Leone that my friend gave me! It is covered in shells and extremely noisy!) These dresses are lovely, the pattern has translated beautifully to a western style - very envious!

  4. love all the gorgeous colors and prints

  5. Dashiki Store sale white dashiki shirts and black dashiki shirts which suitable for dashiki for men and dashiki womens. dashiki shirt


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